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Can the DWP's proposed changes to Universal Credit deliver for women?

Our Policy and Parliamentary Manager Eilidh Dickson looks at the proposed changes to the implementation of Universal Credit and the impact these changes are likely to have on women in receipt of the credit.

It used to be that “a week was a long time in politics”, but these days, major developments seem to occur daily. It's no surprise then that November 2018 already seems like a very long time ago. But that's how long Amber Rudd MP has been in post as Cabinet Secretary for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

For years, UK Government Ministers have been doggedly committed to the Universal Credit. They've pursued it without regard for the serious concerns from recipients and organisations like Engender. Expectations that a new Minister at the DWP would change track now were low, despite her assertion that she was ready to listen and "learn from errors".

However last month the DWP announced some high profile changes to the way Universal Credit (UC) works and is being implemented. Those changes were welcomed by the Minister for Women and Equalities Penny Mordaunt MP as ‘supporting women’s economic empowerment’. Here we take a closer look to see if this claim adds up and assess what impact these changes may have on women’s incomes and gender equality:

1. Universal Credit will be paid to the primary carer:

The single household payment is one of Engender’s biggest concerns about Universal Credit. Alongside our colleagues in the women’s and equalities sectors, we have consistently argued that it is regressive, re-enforces outdated ideas about male breadwinners and female care-givers, and is a direct risk for women experiencing domestic abuse. Instead, we believe that payments should be automatically split to ensure each partner has their independent income which addresses their individual needs. The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee agrees and the Scottish Government has committed to introducing split payments by default in Scotland. However, Amber Rudd has ruled out the same move in England and Wales and instead announced that the whole payment will be paid to the ‘main carer’ in the household. This will of course change nothing for couples with no children. Additionally there’s no clarity on whether this means that there’s a technical change to ensure the true main carer is identified.

2. Halting managed migration:

Managed migration is the transfer of people from older benefit systems like Job-seekers' Allowance to Universal Credit. This process will be ‘paused’ until a pilot of 10,000 people can be carried out. This isn’t quite a new announcement, as rumours had been swirling under the previous Minister, Ester McVey MP. Nonetheless, it is a welcome one, given the persistent design issues with Universal Credit. However Rudd also says there will be "will be no overall delay" to the migration of the 3 million people who continue to receive legacy benefits. They will still be migrated from a system they have relied on for many years onto one still fraught with issues. Many of those issues disproportionately affect women; especially work conditionality for parents and incentives for second earners.

3. The two child-limit will not be applied retroactively:

Three weeks before the two-child limit, or ‘family cap’, on Universal Credit claims was due to be extended, the Work and Pensions Secretary announced that applying the cap retroactively would be unfair. This will be a great relief for families that would have seen their incomes reduced by the policy being applied retroactively, but the fact remains that the cap continues to curtail women’s reproductive freedoms. Disappointingly, Rudd has also said nothing about an end to the ‘rape-clause’. As we've stated repeatedly in both written briefings and oral evidence to Scottish Parliament, the 'rape-clause' is cruel, re-traumatising and violates international standards of human rights.

4. The Work and Pensions Secretary wants the freeze on working-age benefit levels to end next year:

With payment amounts frozen for the past four years, an end to the freeze will be much welcomed. Given that women are more likely to rely on social security, this will impact women’s budgets for the better. However, the freeze was already due to end in spring 2020, so Rudd’s ‘announcement’ actually means that nothing has changed. With rising household costs, another year of static resources means even more women and their families will be pushed into poverty.

5. There’s a “fundamental problem” with the way Universal Credit is paid:

OK, this wasn’t actually announced by Amber Rudd but was the decision made by the High Court in England after the way that the DWP has interpreted Universal Credit regulations was challenged by four single mothers. They successfully argued that because their income from work could be paid early – because of a weekend, for example – this meant some months their Universal Credit could be “vastly reduced” or not paid at all. This dramatically affects the reliability of their month income (CPAG has written a lot about the effects of this pattern of payments). This had huge implications for their mental well-being, their ability to pay bills including rent, and even their ability to feed their children. We don’t know yet if the DWP will appeal the High Court decision, and they have also said the initial five week wait for the first payment is staying. However, Rudd has announced that the DWP will investigate ‘what works’ and look at piloting alternatives to monthly income assessments and payments.


You can find more information on why Universal Credit is an issue for women's equality and why gender matters in social security on our Gender Matters Roadmap wesbite here, and sign up to our social security mailing list here to stay up-to-date with our work on these issues.

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